I recently got into a discussion where the other person claimed that art is a form of communication. Bearing in mind that the definition of art is disputed, did any philosophers argue that a work requires an emotional state or an idea to be transmitted between two parties for it to be considered a work of 'art'? If so, does the communication have to be intended by the author or can it be incidental?

  • 4
    how is this not opinion based?
    – user38026
    Jul 21, 2019 at 10:07
  • 1
    Would that invalidate my question?
    – Mossmyr
    Jul 21, 2019 at 11:20
  • 2
    Yes, it would. Are you asking whether art can be used to communicate, or whether communication is required for something to be considered art? Is "communication" well defined?
    – A C
    Jul 21, 2019 at 21:03
  • 2
    I edited your question to make it comply with our policies, you can edit further or roll back the edit if it does not agree with your intentions. That art communicates something, and that most artists intend it is an empirical fact, what "something" is is more controversial, see IEP on Art Expression, Mothersill's Is Art a Language? and our Is music just another language? thread.
    – Conifold
    Jul 21, 2019 at 23:03
  • @user38026: why should it matter? Sometimes people want to hear other people's opinions. If I ask "Is green the best color?" I might get some good expositions on the color green, even though it is totally objective.
    – Marxos
    Jul 22, 2022 at 4:36

9 Answers 9



  1. Does art require an emotional state or an idea to be transmitted between two parties?
  2. If so, does the communication have to be intended by the author or can it be incidental?

Added later (to @frankhubeny)

  1. Does art create communication?
  2. Or if art is communication?
  3. Or perhaps that the former implies the latter?

Perhaps best to focus on

@Eliran summarized versions

  • Is art a form of communication?
  • What does it communicate exactly?

Here is...

Bob Dylan

Here is an example where message (communication) and art are inextricably linked.

And his Nobel prize citation

For having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.

So the question whether art and the message(in this case pacifism) are linked is only non-trivially a question in the hi-brow «classical» tradition.

And that too only in the western tradition. It would become even easier to demonstrate from other-tradition material but for now I won't cite more art-examples.

Four levels of communication

Indian philosophy traditionally grades vak or vani into 4 gradations.

Vak is roughly speech and vani sound but we could treat them as communication.

The 4 grades or levels are

  • para
  • pashyanti
  • madhyama
  • vaikhari

Literally they would be

  • beyond or other
  • seeing
  • middle or intermediate
  • words

For philosophical purposes we could translate these as

  • transcendent
  • insight or intuition
  • mentalese (see Pinker1 The hypothetical language of thought, or representation of concepts and propositions in the brain, in which ideas, including the meanings of words and sentences, are couched
  • verbiage

A more elaborate explanation of these gradations by Robert Svoboda

Brings us to...

Real communication is communion

The deepest level of communication is not communication, but communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words. It is beyond speech. It is beyond concept. Not that we discover a new unity, but we discover an old unity. My dear brothers and sisters, we are already one. But we imagine we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be, is what we are.

Fr. Thomas Merton

Some may find the following (copy-paste!) from Gurdjieff helpful.

Subjective and objective art

(Selections from Ouspensky's In search of the miraculous. G is Gurdjieff)

At the moment it is not yet clear to you," G. once said, "that people living on the earth can belong to very different levels, although in appearance they look exactly the same. Just as there are very different levels of men, so there are different levels of art. Only you do not realize at present that the difference between these levels is far greater than you might suppose. You take different things on one level, far too near one another, and you think these different levels are accessible to you.

"I do not call art all that you call art, which is simply mechanical reproduction, imitation of nature or other people, or simply fantasy, or an attempt to be original. Real art is something quite different. Among works of art, especially works of ancient art, you meet with many things you cannot explain and which contain a certain something you do not feel in modem works of art. But as you do not realize what this difference is you very soon forget it and continue to take everything as one kind of art. And yet there is an enormous difference between your art and the art of which I speak. In your art everything is subjective — the artists perception of this or that sensation; the forms in which he tries to express his sensations and the perception of these forms by other people. In one and the same phenomenon one artist may feel one thing and another artist quite a different thing. One and the same sunset may evoke a feeling of joy in one artist and sadness in another. Two artists may strive to express exactly the same perceptions by entirely different methods, in different forms; or entirely different perceptions in the same forms — according to how they were taught, or contrary to it. And the spectators, listeners, or readers will perceive, not what the artist wished to convey or what he felt, but what the forms in which he expresses his sensations will make them feel by association. Everything is subjective and everything is accidental, that is to say, based on accidental associations — the impres- sion of the artist and his 'creation'" (he emphasized the word "creation"), "the perceptions of the spectators, listeners, or readers.

"In real art there is nothing accidental. It is mathematics. Everything in it can be calculated, everything can be known beforehand. The artist knows and understands what he wants to convey and his work cannot produce one impression on one man and another impression on another presuming, of course, people on one level. It will always, and with mathematical certainty, produce one and the same impression.

"At the same time the same work of art will produce different impressions on people of different levels. And people of lower levels will never receive from it what people of higher levels receive. This is real, objective art. hnagine some scientific work — a book on asttonomy or chemistry. It is impossible that one person should understand it in one way and another in another way. Everyone who is sufficiently prepared and who is able to read this book will understand what the author means, and precisely as the author means it. An objective work of art is just such a book, except that it affects the emotional and not only the intellectual side of man." "Do such works of objective art exist at the present day?" I asked. "Of course they exist," answered G. "The great Sphinx in Egypt is such a work of art, as well as some historically known works of architecture, certain statues of gods, and many other things. There are figures of gods and of various mythological beings that can be read like books, only not with the mind but with the emotions, provided they are sufficiently developed. In the course of our travels in Central Asia we found, in the desert at the foot of the Hindu Kush, a strange figure which we thought at first was some ancient god or devil. At first it produced upon us simply the impression of being a curiosity. But after a while we began to feel that this figure contained many things, a big, complete, and complex system of cosmology. And slowly, step by step, we began to decipher this system. It was in the body of the figure, in its legs, in its arms, in its head, in its eyes, in its ears; everywhere. In the whole statue there was nothing accidental, nothing without meaning. And gradually we understood the aim of the people who built this statue. We began to feel their thoughts, their feelings. Some of us thought that we saw their faces, heard their voices. At all events, we grasped the meaning of what they wanted to convey to us across thousands of years, and not only the meaning, but all the feelings and the emotions connected with it as well. That indeed was art!"

"Men have tried for a long time to invent a universal (philosophic) language," G said. "And in this instance, as in many others, they seek something which has long since been found and try to think of and invent something which has been known and in existence a long time. I said before that there exist not one but three universal languages, to speak more exactly, three degrees. The first degree of this language already makes it possible for people to express their owm thoughts and to understand the thoughts of others in relation to things concerning which ordinary language is powerless."

"In what relation do these languages stand to art?" someone asked. "And does not art itself represent that 'philosophical language' which others seek intellectually?"

I do not know of which art you speak," said G. "There is art and art. You have doubtless noticed that during our lectures and talks 1 have often been asked various questions by those present relating to art but I have always avoided talks on this subject. This was because 1 consider all ordinary talks about art as absolutely meaningless. People speak of one thing while they imply something quite different and they have no idea whatever what they are implying. At the same time it is quite useless to try to explain the real relationship of things to a man who does not know the A B C about himself, that is to say, about man. We have talked together now for some time and by now you ought to know this A B C, so that I can perhaps talk to you now even about art.

"You must first of all remember that there are two kinds of art, one quite different from the other — objective art and subjective art. All that you know, all that you call art, is subjective art, that is, something that I do not call art at all because it is only objective art that I call art.

"To define what I call objective art is difficult first of all because you ascribe to subjective art the characteristics of objective art, and secondly because when you happen upon objective works of art you take them as being on the same level as subjective works of art.

"I will try to make my idea clear. You say — an artist creates. I say this only in connection with objective art. In relation to subjective art I say that with him 'it is created.' You do not differentiate between these, but this is where the whole difference lies. Further you ascribe to subjective art an invariable action, that is, you expect works of subjective art to have the same reaction on everybody. You think, for instance, that a funeral march should provoke in everyone sad and solemn thoughts and that any dance music, a komarinsky for instance, will provoke happy thoughts. But in actual fact this is not so at all. Everything depends upon association. If on a day that a great misfortime happens to me I hear some lively tune for the first time this tune will evoke in me sad and oppressive thoughts for my whole life afterwards. And if on a day when I am particularly happy I hear a sad tune, this tune will always evoke happy thoughts. And so with everything else.

"The difference between objective art and subjective art is that in objective art the artist really does 'create,' that is, he makes what he intended, he puts into his work whatever ideas and feelings he wants to put into it. And the action of this work upon men is absolutely definite; they will, of course each according to his own level, receive the same ideas and the same feelings that the artist wanted to transmit to them. There can be nothing accidental either in the creation or in the impressions of objective art.

"In subjective art everything is accidental. The artist, as I have already said, does not create; with him 'it creates itself This means that he is in the power of ideas, thoughts, and moods which he himself does not understand and over which he has no control whatever. They rule him and they express themselves in one form or another. And when they have accidentally taken this or that fonn, this form just as accidentally produces on man this or that action according to his mood, tastes, habits, the nature of the hypnosis under which he lives, and so on. There is nothing invariable; nothing is definite here. In objective art there is nothing indefinite."

"Would not art disappear in being definite in this way?" asked one of us. "And is not a certain indefiniteness, elusiveness, exactly what distinguishes art from, let us say, science? If this indefiniteness is taken away, if you take away the fact that the artist himself does not know what he will obtain or what impression his work will produce on people, it will then be a 'book' and not art."

"I do not know what you are talking about," said G. "We have different standards: I measure the merit of art by its consciousness and you measure it by its unconsciousness. We cannot understand one another. A work of objective art ought to be a 'book' as you. call it; the only difference is that the artist transmits his ideas not directly through words or signs or hieroglyphs, but through certain feelings which he excites consciously and in an orderly way, knowing what he is doing and why he does it."


Beethoven is reported to have said (my emphases added to highlight the connection to the question)

When I open my eyes I must sigh, for what I see is contrary to my religion, and I must despise the world which does not know that music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy, the wine which inspires one to new generative processes, and I am the Bacchus who presses out this glorious wine for mankind and makes them spiritually drunken. When they are again become sober they have drawn from the sea all that they brought with them, all that they can bring with them to dry land. I have not a single friend, I must live alone. But well I know that God is nearer to me than to other artists; I associate with Him without fear; I have always recognized and understood Him and have no fear for my music — it can meet no evil fate. Those who understand it must be freed by it from all the miseries which the others drag about with themselves.

Music, verily, is the mediator between intellectual and sensuous life.

Speak to Goethe about me. Tell him to hear my symphonies and he will say that I am right in saying that music is the one incorporeal entrance into the higher world of knowledge which comprehends mankind but which mankind cannot comprehend.

  • 2
    While this is a nice quote from Beethoven I don't see how it answers the question. Is art a form of communication according to this quote? What does it communicate exactly?
    – E...
    Jul 21, 2019 at 23:48
  • Pertinent question @Eliran. Need to run just now (doc). Will write in a bit.
    – Rushi
    Jul 22, 2019 at 0:53
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    @eliran Beethoven I cannot improve! And he covers the question. But some may find him too poetic to be clear. So I've made a separate answer and left Beethoven alone!
    – Rushi
    Jul 23, 2019 at 12:58

Communication is merely the act of sharing mental contexts: thoughts, ideas, knowledge, feelings, perceptions, etc... Any human sense can be used as a channel for communication by codifying a mental context into a form perceptible to that sense. For instance, if I tap someone on the shoulder, click my tongue, and point, I can effectively communicate an intention. Communication is a mysterious and poorly understood activity, but it is not difficult to see because it infuses most of human life.

Art is always an attempt to share a mental context usually an emotional context — and so art is always a form of communication.

Of course, every channel of communication is subject to static and white noise: mere production of sensory experience not codified to share any significant mental context. On a certain level humans (like parakeets) are comforted by bland sensation, a kind of primal instinct that feels the world in safe so long as there is an ongoing stream of insignificant experiences. But we should not allow such noise to drown out the signal.

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    Is art always an attempt to share a mental context? Can't I paint a painting simply to enjoy the process, or is that a form of communication as well?
    – Mossmyr
    Jul 21, 2019 at 16:58
  • In the most trivial sense, every form of expression is meant to share a mental context. When a mother picks up an infant and sings a nursery rhyme, she is trying to communicate a calm, happy, sleepy mental state to the infant. But if you mean communication in the non-trivial (serious) sense of the term, then not even language is always an effort to share a mental context. A good 90% of modern media is mere drivel with no purpose except to fill silence. If you want to vapidly enjoy yourself you can paint, talk with a friend about The Bachelorette, post something on Twitter... Jul 21, 2019 at 19:15

I agree with Rusi's answer. This provides another way to consider art as a form of communication even when unintended.

Michael Polanyi claims the following about knowledge in general: (page 7)

...all knowledge is either tacit or rooted in tacit knowledge.

If that is the case then any form of explicit communication is rooted in tacit knowledge. This may help answer the OP's second question:

...does the communication have to be intended by the author or can it be incidental?

Whatever the author is explicitly trying to communicate can be considered a form of knowledge. If so it is rooted in tacit knowledge even for the author. The full communication is more than what is intended by the author and so there is an "incidental" or tacit component.

Then consider the first question:

...would you agree that a work requires an emotional state or idea to be transmitted between two parties for it to be considered 'art'?

The author may have no explicit intention to communicate anything to the reader. However, the communication itself creates an explicit statement. When the reader attempts to understand that statement, which may be meaningless to the author, a tacit component is introduced by the reader creating an unintended communication from the author to the reader.

Polanyi, M. (1966). The logic of tacit inference. Philosophy, 41(155), 1-18.

  • 1
    Very elegantly put, but can you clarify if you mean that art creates communication or if art is communication, or perhaps that the former implies the latter?
    – Mossmyr
    Jul 21, 2019 at 16:47
  • On one hand you're backing up claims with references, but on the other hand you're making questionable inferences with no justification. "If that is the case then any form of explicit communication is rooted in tacit knowledge." why? Lying is a form of communication. Is that also a kind of knowledge?
    – E...
    Jul 21, 2019 at 16:57
  • @Mossmyr As I see it thinking of Polanyi, art both creates and is communication. The part one can point to as an object is the explicit part. What's tacit allows for understanding of what that art object, that explicit part, means. Jul 21, 2019 at 18:09

I started working at an art school a few months ago, and have since been asking myself what I think counts as art.

The whole definition problem started when our cultural understanding of what art is became divorced from the concept of artisanship -- instead becoming linked to ideas about inspiration, uniqueness and genius (which lead to celebrity artists).

Even in the olden days I imagine, whether a cavemen was good at drawing oxen or whether a sculptor was skilled in making marble busts was up for debate. But now that artworks can be mainly conceptual (should be, according to many), what counts as art is even more complicated to lay down.

Anyone can have their own definition, of what art is and what isn't and what it should be. I too have a certain standard, but I won't bore you with that. Someone wants to call art a form of communication? Sure! Join the club and let's have a beer.

Ironically, the study of human communication has the same problem. I have a masters degree in Communication Science, and from what I remember learning at university, anything can be considered communication. Researchers studied anything from the cultural norms expressed in private letters between migrants and the families they left behind, to long-term effects of television soap operas on society as a whole. Each separate field of research may use a different definition of communication, which is fine. Communication Science is about asking 'what is going on between people communicating' (be it mediated or not, personal, many-to-many or one-to-many), and 'what is the result of all that communicating', and both questions are interesting and hard enough as it is. What truly counts as communication is not very interesting nor very useful as a general question.

Whether art counts as communication is, in my opinion, also a rather useless question. Art can be anything you define it to be. People have been shitting in cans and then had those cans be displayed in museums (see Merda d'artista). People who just put an entire pharmacy in an art gallery (Damian Hirst) have been applauded as exciting, innovative artists. Communication can also be anything you define it to be. Trying to define one as the other may sound interesting, but don't expect to gain any useful knowledge from the exercise.

  • Sturgeon's Law is helpful in these situations.
    – Scott Rowe
    Mar 28 at 14:30

If we take communication as a mean to transmit information, with information allowed to be something as simple as one's sentiment, and with art having be sensed in some way, even if it is to sense its void, then I fail to see how art can not be communication.

Like other answers brought up, Art is a contested term. Fundamentally, however, it is an expression. An expression carries information about one's sentiments; showcasing something that is pleasing to the artist, or something that is painful, or just what is. The scratches, etchings, whines and scribbles that may result from a subconscious fragment of one's state of mind are still expression, carrying equally blurred information even if it is just "I exist".

Ultimately, those who create art from being hired to do so are also communicating their understanding of what is being requested, regardless how they feel about it.

  • Graffiti on train cars appears to mean basically, "I exist". Not sure about the reason to want to express that.
    – Scott Rowe
    Mar 28 at 14:27

Yes, if your model of communication is broad in scope. For example, below is an illustration of Roman Jakobson's theory of communication. Here, communication is not merely a message encoded and transmitted from one point to another, but is characterized according to different aspects of the communication process.

Functions of communication according to Roman Jakobson

  1. Referential (what the message is about)
  2. Aesthetic/poetic (the message for its own sake)
  3. Emotive (information about the sender)
  4. Conative (vocative or imperative addressing of receiver)
  5. Phatic (checking the communication channel working)
  6. Metalingual (about the language itself, checking code working)

Although Jakobson's concern is literature and he refers only to the aspect as aesthetic/poetic that can be related to art, a more contemporary approach could re-interpret this model as every aspect potentially taking part in the communication of art. Art can not only tell a story (1) or be created for its own sake (2), but can also express the artist's inner feelings (3). It can also directly address the viewer (4), explore the medium/materials/technique of artmaking (5), or play with or create a new language (6).


I mean on a superficial level it's easy to dismiss this idea based on selective definitions of art and communication.

For example you could take the etymological definition of the English word "art" and just translate it to "skillful", then no, being really good at X is not really a form of communication. Even if you argue that the quest for improvement of a skill also creates a "perfect" version of the thing that you strive towards and that this is the expression of an aesthetic, of an idea or a philosophy that you express, you could also just do that in the confines of your own home and never talk about it with anybody thus being an artist without communicating.

So given that the interaction with an other is kinda the minimum requirement of a communication, one would need to answer at least the question as to "whether art can be art without an audience". So is it just about the process of doing it? The result of having done it? The moment someone else interacts with it (actively, passively, emotionally)? And is it the artist that makes it art or the observer? For example consider ancient pottery, back in the days it might have been a tool for practical usage, 2000 years later and people put it in a museum and call it "art".

And in that latter sense you have at least one way of a conversation, that is you have the creator sending a message and a receiver reacting to it. But even if we assume that we're witnessing an alien species, don't know the language and just observe the interaction then we'd still kinda expect that a communication goes both ways. And even though there are also real life conversations where only one side does the talking, you'd still in those cases have a dedicated audience and the awareness of a communication. While you can imagine art where that is not the case "death of the author"/"found footage" for example.

Though it's quite possible that an active audience member (especially in the age of social media where everything has a comment function), would consider art to be a conversation, even the artist might disagree. Or an artist could think of art as a conversation when they provide society with an interesting problem waiting for their reaction to it, but they just don't. Depending on the definition that is failed communication, unintentional communication or no conversation at all.

"Bearing in mind that the definition of art is disputed, did any philosophers argue that a work requires an emotional state or an idea to be transmitted between two parties for it to be considered a work of 'art'? If so, does the communication have to be intended by the author or can it be incidental?"

Either way "art" would struggle to meet those requirements of a direct, bidirectional exchange of information and emotional states, in a shared language.

Maybe art is better described as a proto-conversation. By which I mean an attempt to create a connection and establish a language in order to later have a conversation.

Like art is both a tool to express something, an attempt to show an example of something that doesn't exist or describe the undescribeable and on the other hand a window into your soul that you leave open for other people. Yet as there is no established language the conversation can be pretty rough and misunderstandings are almost inevitable especially if the communicating parties are separated from each other in space and time and can't agree on a shared list of definitions.

Though even if the artist has no "mission" or "message" they nonetheless transport a lot of information even if the audience is eavesdropping rather than being talked to?

So there's plenty of possibilities to dismiss this picture and to establish more narrow definitions of communication where art doesn't fit, but one can also kinda see where people are going with that.


Art has been a form of communication for centuries. You see very well developed art forms in ancient India. Some of them still survive. They have complex hand and feet gestures synced to different musical instruments. If you watch a classical Indian dance performance you will be overwhelmed with emotion. This art form is very detailed and sophisticated. Dance is an art form which communicates with the audience in real time, providing a profound and exhilarating experience.

For those who are unaware of the complexity of Indian Classical Dances, check out this short description along with illustration. https://exampariksha.com/important-folk-classical-dances-of-india-general-awareness-study-material-notes/

  • How does this answer the question? You say "art has been a form of communication for centuries", but without any sources to back that up, it's just your opinion. Also, these "well developed art forms" are presumably static, representing dance, after which you delve deeper into dance as another art form, which communicates, again without giving argumentation. If the linked article holds answers to these questions, could you quote the relevant passages?
    – Joachim
    May 18, 2020 at 11:54
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    Artists themselves mainly contend that they are intentionally sending some sort of message. They are often cryptic or coy about what that message is. Art critics spend much of their time trying to decipher those messages. But this question as to whether art is a form of communication is not a matter of opinion, it is undeniably a matter of fact. The matter of what an artist is trying to communicate, now there's the rub! CMS
    – user37981
    May 18, 2020 at 15:55

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